The Folly of Motivation

The Folly of Motivation

Motivation is highly overrated, even if it’s a necessary condition for success . Sure, it’s important to be motivated to get good grades in school, to move up the ranks in a company, to start your own business and even to have a good family. Another thing that’s pretty important for success is breathing, yet we don’t spend a lot of time watching breathing videos on YouTube, as millions of people do for motivation. We could argue that people who are constantly watching motivational videos (most of us have been guilty of this crime) lack discipline. More importantly, they lack a system for success. Once we’re plugged into a good system, things start to become automatic, the system starts to form habits and those habits start to free up our mind for more important things, such as thinking.

Motivation is for small tasks

Motivation should be reserved for doing only small tasks, that start the system, and not to accomplish big things. For example, if we wanted to cook something for the family, we might need motivation to get out of our chair and start cooking, but once we start chopping the vegetables, turn on the pan or oven, we rarely need motivation to finish the meal. Why? Because cooking is a system and once we start the system, we practically start moving in autopilot. We follow a pattern of steps and we typically see it through.

Motivation does not make a champion

Motivation is like goals, in that they’re vitally important but often oversold as being sufficient. Every year, 30 NBA teams start the season with the goal of winning the championship. That makes sense, since all these teams spend millions of dollars recruiting the best talent available and all of them, in theory, have a chance at the championship, but in practice, only one team wins. So, what happened with the other 29? Were their goals not clear? It cannot get any clearer than winning the championship. Were they perhaps not motivated enough? Common phrases that are used are: “X team wanted it the most” or “Y team didn’t want it bad enough.” Upon careful examination, we can see that the winning teams had a better system and they executed it with more discipline. Certainly, winning teams tend to have better players, but isn’t recruitment a part of a winning system? Everything goes back to the system.

Motivation does not win a war

The discipline/motivation dichotomy can also be exemplified in the theater of war. On April 15, 1861, the Confederate army attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. In response to the attack, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers and among those volunteers was Ulysses S. Grant. Grant had military experience and was eager to serve. He quickly moved up the ranks and within a short period of time, he oversaw and controlled the entire Union army. His mission was to win the war. In other words, Grant had a very specific goal and he was motivated. His challenge was that Robert E. Lee also had also a very specific mission, which was to win the war, at all costs. As you can probably see, someone was bound to be disappointed; someone was going to fail at their mission. In the case of Grant and Lee, both had similar experience, both attended West Point, the premier academy in the country, and both commanded formidable motivated armies. While there were many factors involved in the Union’s victory, Grant’s ability to stick to a game plan and execute with great discipline was a huge factor in defeating the Confederate army. The difference maker was, once again, the system.

You don’t need motivational books

Motivation and discipline are complimentary and not mutually exclusive, but it’s useful to contrast the two only because we tend to concentrate too much on the former, at the expense of the latter. Go to any book store and you’ll find only few books on discipline and hundreds on motivation or motivation related topics. People line up to hear “motivational speakers,” not so much to hear people talk about discipline, and that’s a real shame. If we study the lives of successful people, from Benjamin Franklin to Jeff Bezos, we are struck by their incredible discipline. Yes, of course, they were motivated by large goals and aspirations but what set them apart was not their lofty goals, it was their incredible discipline and adherence to systems. Keep in mind that we tend to only hear about the people with audacious goals, who actually accomplished them. That accomplishment required a disciplined approach, in other words, a system. If goals and motivation were the determining factors for success, anyone who possessed them would have accomplished them, but the world is filled with dreamers who never accomplish much. We rarely hear, however, about people who have uncommon discipline, plus a great system and goals, who never seem to accomplish anything. They simply don’t exist or are extremely rare.

Motivation is fleeting

We covered previously that we should use motivation only to do very small tasks that kickstart a process of a system. The reason we should reserve motivation for these small tasks and not for bigger tasks is that motivation is often fleeting and capricious. Some studies from prominent journals have indicated that willpower or motivation is a limited resource, others similarly credible sources have contradicted that study as hogwash. We don’t really need a study to understand that motivation and willpower are fleeting because we’ve seen it in our own lives. Most of us have experienced an incredible rush of motivation while listening to a motivational speech or reading a book that inspires us. At that moment, we resolve to change our ways and start that business, lose that weight, finish that degree, learn that skill or take over the world, as soon as we start our day tomorrow. We go to sleep with visions of the new life we will have and are giddy to start our new journey when we wake up. Then, the alarm sounds at 6 AM and our motivation is nowhere to be found. We snooze the alarm clock and pray that the 5-minute snooze feels like an hour. We finally get out of bed, grab a cup of coffee and start reading our emails and realize we have a few things to do today that we hadn’t planned on. We better make a little to-do list! We start listing the top 5 or so things we must do, and we forget to include taking over the world. By the time we get back home, our energy level is down, and we are reminded of that big plan we had last night and frustration kicks in. We resolve once again, and the next day we repeat the same routine as today. Our motivation is not sufficient to take over the world, but if we take the time to create a system, we will find that our motivation is more than enough to do the first task to start the system. In fact, we do this already. On the previous example, snoozing the alarm clock or reading our emails started a system. Granted it’s not a good system, but it’s a system nonetheless. What we have to do is consciously analyze our systems and tweak them so that they serve us better.

Use motivation to start the system

If we want to lose weight, we don’t have to worry about running a marathon. All we have to do is map our route, any route will work, the simpler the better, and set aside the night before our workout clothes and running shoes. When we start the system, we won’t feel like running. That’s almost a certainty. Here’s where our motivation plays an important role. We need to use that motivation to put on our clothes in the morning and resolve to walk out the door and run for 1 minute. Everyone can handle 1 minute! Of course, that won’t do the trick, as far as losing weight, but most of the time we will likely do more than 1 minute until we eventually set the minimum at 5, 10 and 30 minutes. Before we know it, we’re runners, and it all started with one small task propelled by motivation and maintained by a disciplined system. Of course, our optimal weight system doesn’t stop there, we also start incorporating better nutritional choices, the step for this could be something as simple as a food journal. We don’t need to worry if we should do Keto, Atkins, South Florida or whatever the latest diet trend is this year. Our only concern is doing a small step that starts the system. If we do this for a few weeks, the act of having to remember what we ate and jotting it down will automatically motivate us to eat healthier. Again, motivation is used only for minor lifting. The big lifting is done by the system and the discipline to adhere to it.

An algorithm for success

We can think of a “success system” like an algorithm. Algorithms are a sequence of rules to be followed in a particular order. They are used by just about anything that uses a microchip, which is pretty much every gadget we use now to make our lives easier and better. When an action is completed, such as hitting the enter key in a computer or clicking a box with the computer mouse, the algorithm is run, and a series of actions are done automatically. Many times, these are thousands of actions one after another. The simple act of hitting the enter key for a computer is akin to doing the first step in our system, such as putting on our running shoes or writing down that we just ate a hamburger.

A business cannot thrive without a good system, neither can a life.

Years ago, when I was running a finance company I would show up to work and the system would start. Meetings were scheduled, emails were sent, training sessions were conducted, and sales calls were made. The entire operation and the dozens of employees were part of the system and we all plugged into the system in our own way. As the leader of the organization, my job was to make sure the system was working properly and that it was being tweaked to accommodate the growth desired. Running a multi-million-dollar organization requires a system, not just motivation and goals. A life is as important, if not, much more important, than any company. Just like a company cannot run without systems, we shouldn’t run our lives without them. Motivation is the catalyst for our system, not the savior of our goals.

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